With just about every problem you eventually come to a point in solving it where you throw your hands up and say, “If only we could get to the root cause of the problems instead of reacting to the symptoms…” at which point you trail off, indicating to everyone in the room that you are acknowledging a sad but universal truth. You can’t fix everything, and no one has all the answers. Or do we?
The true root of all that ails society actually isn’t that hard to find at all, and both liberals and conservatives agree on what it is — poverty. The existence of poverty is what rests at the epicenter of an earthquake that threatens the foundations of every society ever built; and it does so every single hour of every single day. When you are so very poor that you cannot afford the true necessities in life — and for once I’m not talking about the latest iGadget that makes your iLife that much iBetter than it was iBefore, you regularly make a choice between eating and paying a bill, often times the decision becomes “neither.”
Poverty leads to desperation, and if there is anything that’s both volatile and dangerous, it’s a desperate human. Our way of life is predicated on money. Having some gets you food and shelter (along with everything else we’ve twisted into a commodity of some sort or another). Having none gets you nothing except an empty stomach and a gnawing feeling that things may never get better. Don’t mistake this as some socialist, anti-capitalism rant; I enjoy capitalism when it’s not fucking ruining everything it touches. I like that I am free to choose whatever legal means I want to in order to pursue my life’s ambitions. I just don’t like that everything has become a product, even basic things like nutrition and health care.
It’s when people become desperate that they commit crimes to make money. It’s when people feel desperate for escape that they turn to drugs, both prescription and the street variety, to take them away from the harsh realities of poverty. Don’t get me wrong — I’m in no way saying that everyone who lives a life of abject poverty turns to crime and drugs, not by a long shot. However, the simple and truly universal truth of the situation is that it is far easier to fall into the cracks of society when you are denied access to the educational and institutional support structures that one would need to reach their fullest potential.
Poverty, then, is the enemy of peace and prosperity. When people can’t afford to eat, they sure as hell can’t afford medications, and so illness and disease spreads right alongside blight and crime. These are not new paradigms; fighting poverty is exactly why programs like Social Security, Medicare, and other assistance programs were created in the first place. The right-wing in this country has spent the better part of a century trying to undo all the programs we’ve started that very nobly attempt to mitigate the threat that is poverty.
These programs are demagogued by the right as being part of the sinister liberal agenda to get everyone hooked on the government. They couldn’t be any more incorrect. The social safety net has been woven over time as a means to protect ourselves from all the terrible things that come with poverty. The right, however says that government shouldn’t be interfering where private parties, especially church-based charities, can provide the help and assistance people need. Which brings us to an idea that I’m not sure many have thought of, but which I believe is the ultimate debunking counterargument against those who say our government has no place helping those in need through our social programs.
The social safety net and the separation of church and state are two symbiotic paradigms, strengthening and depending on each other.
Yes, I am making a First Amendment argument for social programs. Why should anyone be forced to ingest religion — even the most altruistic and benign of them — in order to get the help they need? The fundamental flaw in the conservative argument that the private sector and only the private sector should be providing assistance and charity is two-fold.
First, the notion that simply because someone is rich and successful, they’ll feel compelled to help those in need. I’m not saying every rich person, or even a majority of rich people, are selfish. What I am saying is that until the 20th Century this country did pretty much tell the indigent to seek relief only from the private sector, and we had to create government-run programs anyway because lo and behold, the private sector wasn’t really ending poverty.
The second fatal flaw in that argument is the big one. By forcing someone into a church to get help, you are essentially saying that one must partake of religion to get help, that one must enter a place of religion to help mitigate the poverty they live with. Conservatives have a very interesting picture painted of what someone who has needed help looks like; they see him or her as being primarily too lazy to find a job, and so to them it must not seem a big deal for someone to subjugate their right to freedom of and from religion to “free stuff.”
Fun fact — veterans are 50% more likely to wind up homeless than those who did not serve in combat. Wouldn’t you just love to see a Republican call a homeless vet “lazy?”
The fatal flaws in the “go to God” societal approach aside, there’s also a question of sheer numbers. Who has the financial clout to help millions upon millions of people? More importantly, who can do it quickly and somewhat efficiently? For all the trash-talking Republicans do about government, the fact is that the government has been faithfully delivering help to those who need it for decades now, and outside of the times when the very government itself was used as a political football, the checks have always gotten to where they needed to go. It’s just one more fallacy in a litany of lies that the right tells about the functionality of government.
The philosophical and legislative wall between religion and government doesn’t just get strength from the social safety net, it empowers it. The moment the Framers decided to build this country free from a state-sponsored religion was the moment they set in place a necessity for populist, dare I say “socialist” resolutions for the problems of poverty. If we were living in a theocracy, it would be a matter of course that we’d send all our poor people to God’s house. We don’t live in a theocracy though, and more to the point not everyone in this country is religious, much less a Christian. Therefore we have no need to force people into experiencing religion when what they need is a couple bucks to buy a loaf of bread.
This isn’t an anti-religion angle I’m taking. It’s a an anti-forcing religion on people at inappropriate times thing. It’s an “All the churches in the country don’t have the monetary power to help the sheer number of people that the United States government can” kind of thing. Church charities are just fine; they serve a very noble and necessary part of the process. No one though should be forced into a place of worship to get a warm meal; not when we can spend billions of dollars on tanks the Army doesn’t want, and planes the Air Force can’t fly. It would be one thing if we lived in a country that didn’t have the vast wealth and resources that we do; but that’s not the case. There is no need to tell people to “go to God” only to be arm-twisted into experiencing religion…at least on some level. We can instead have them fill out a form, submit to some investigation to make sure they’re not just scamming everyone, and then get the help they need that way, no need to make God the middle man.
I could argue that every dollar we spend helping people buy food goes right back into our economy. I could argue that every time we give a student a loan we do so with the knowledge that the loan will be paid back when that student takes their education and becomes a contributing member of society. I could argue that the simple fact that we don’t have a billion people roaming the streets sick and poor, breaking into cars to steal money to buy either food, booze or drugs with proves that our social safety net works, with or without God’s help.